The Language of Heroes: Speech and Performance in the Iliad

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To hear the voice which tells the Iliad—that was my simple and impractical aim as I began this book. The urge to do so came from my sense that the archaic Greek epic poem is inevitably polyphonic— created by generations of traditional tellers, narrated in the voices of many individual characters—yet unique: it seems to have the persuasive force and coherence of a single, powerful performance, by one poet, whom we have come to call Homer. The interplay between traditional narrative material and the poet’s spontaneous composition seemed to me particularly important in the Iliad‘s dramatic representation of the speech of humans and gods. In what sense can the words of any hero in the poem be “traditional” as are the repeated phrases used to narrate the poem, the epithets and type-scenes? Conversely, how spontaneous might such dramatic representation of speech become, if the poet of the Iliad composed rapidly, making verses in a difficult meter, as he performed? Must a poet (or a heroic speaker) “misuse” the medium in order to express an idea that was not traditionally expressed in the inherited diction of epic? Can the speeches in the Iliad be used to prove whether or not the poem was composed orally at all?

My attempt to answer these questions led me to rethink a number of my assumptions about language, verbal art, and the individual performer. With the help of work in ethnography and ethnolinguistics, folklore studies, linguistic philosophy, and literary theory, I have been able to formulate the answers I offer in this book. {xiii|xiv}

My central conclusion is that the Iliad takes shape as a poetic composition in precisely the same “speaking culture” that we see foregrounded in the stylized words of the poem’s heroic speakers, especially those speeches designated as muthos , a word I redefine as “authoritative speech-act. ” The poet and the hero are both “performers” in a traditional medium. The genre of muthos composing requires that its practitioners improve on previous performances and surpass them, by artfully manipulating traditional material in new combinations. In other words, within the speeches of the poem, we see that it is traditional to be spontaneous: no hero ever merely repeats; each recomposes the traditional text he performs, be it a boast, threat, command, or story, in order to project his individual personality in the most convincing manner. I suggest that the “voice” of the poet is the product of the same traditional performance technique. In Chapters 4 and 5, I show in detail how this technique might explain the vexing problem of the “language of Achilles,” a problem first raised by Adam Parry and one that goes to the heart of the oral-formulaic theory constructed largely by Adam Parry’s father Milman Parry. In short, it seems to me that both father and son can be confirmed in their intuitions: the speeches of the Iliad are, on the one hand, perfectly consistent with the assumption of oral composition-in-performance; on the other hand, the technique of individualizing variation within these speeches enables us to uncover the very motivation for the composition of a unique and monumental oral epic about the hero Achilles.

The problems this book explores first attracted my attention when I began to teach a graduate seminar, The Poetics of the Iliad, in the spring of 1985 at Princeton University. My first thanks, therefore, go to all the students in that memorable course. I am particularly grateful to Sheila Colwell, Carol Dougherty-Glenn, Carolyn Higbie, Drew Keller, Leslie Kurke, Lisa Maurizio, Victor Ortiz, and David Rosen-bloom for their continued interest and suggestions as this project grew.

Through the generosity of the alumni and faculty of Princeton University, I was enabled to devote the academic year 1985—86 to research with a leave provided by the Class of 1936 Bicentennial Preceptorship. For this award I am extremely grateful. My colleagues in the Department of Classics have lavished on me their encouragement and advice; without the environment they create, in which both critical practice and philological acumen are valued, I doubt that this {xv} book could have been written. I owe all a great debt of thanks, especially three Hellenist colleagues, John Keaney, Froma Zeitlin, and Andrew Ford, who generously gave their time and expertise in discussing many aspects of this book with me.

To audiences at Cornell, Columbia, the University of Kansas, and Harvard I am grateful for appreciative comments and critiques, particularly on portions of Chapter 1. I thank Alan Nussbaum, James Coulter, Stanley Lombardo, and Jeffrey Wills for invitations to speak on my work at these institutions. Homerists at several other universities provided advice and much needed reassurance, in person or by letter, while I was engaged in writing: I thank Mark Edwards of Stanford University; George Dimock of Smith College; J. B. Mains-worth of New College, Oxford; Michael Nagler of Berkeley; and Norman Austin of the University of Arizona for their kindness.

I have been blessed with good teachers, to whom I owe more than any book could repay. I regret that Cedric Whitman, in whose classes I first encountered the power of the Iliad, will not read my thanks. John Finley, Robert Fitzgerald, and Calvert Watkins showed me, each in his way, the beauty of Homeric poetry, and how to write of it. Lowell Edmunds, who has patiently endured my writing since 1975, taught me much about clarity of thought and style and led me to explore other disciplines to illuminate Greek poetry. Finally, Gregory Nagy has provided guidance and friendship, inspiration and motivation. My book would not have been possible without his pioneering studies in the Greek poetic tradition. My scholarly debts to him show forth in each chapter. This work stands as a sēma of my deep gratitude for his princely instruction.

It remains to offer thanks to my wife, Maureen, whose patience, understanding, and affection enabled me to write. Her endurance deserves Homeric commemoration. The dedication at the front of this volume records my debt to those whose love and sacrifice reared and educated me, teaching me from the start the language heroes speak.

Richard P. Martin

Princeton, New Jersey